"Outside Mullingar" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
It's easy to laugh at the stubborn grudges and silly superstitions that threaten a long-game love match in "Outside Mullingar." Yet this 2014 romantic comedy by John Patrick Shanley ("Moonstruck," "Doubt") doesn't pull dramatic punches when it comes to long-standing battles between neighbors, aging parents and their grown children.
Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's embracing take on "Outside Mullingar" finds a wonderful balance of light and dark at College of DuPage's McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn. Veteran Chicago director Steve Scott oversees this endearing and enjoyable production, which can unleash gales of laughter one moment and sniffles the next.
Set in rural Ireland, "Outside Mullingar" begins bleakly in late 2008 as Tony Reilly (Norm Woodel) and his son, Anthony (Robert Jordan Bailey), invite their widowed neighbor, Aoife Muldoon (Millie Hurley), over for tea following her husband's wake. Though they offer condolences and kind words about the late Christopher Muldoon, the Reillys are more eager to see if his survivors will now sell back a contested patch of land that affects right of way access to the road.
The Reillys are far from united. Tony makes it known that he doesn't trust the milquetoast Anthony to take over the family farm and even floats the idea of leaving it to a distant American cousin, much to the disapproval of Aoife and her feisty daughter, Rosemary (Kelli Walker).
Mortality hovers over the endearing characters of Shanley's "Outside Mullingar." They vehemently cling to entrenched views, risking their own happiness in the process. Thus, the personal stakes remain high in this sharp and sentimental comedy.
I would have liked to have seen more father-son antagonism simmering beneath the surface in Bailey and Woodel's performances as the Reillys. What's there works, though there's less tension than in the 2015 area debut of "Outside Mullingar" at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.
Woodel is much more effective as he spars with Walker's incisive Rosemary. Walker adeptly conveys Rosemary's unending resentments and calculating patience, which almost unravel her future hopes. Walker also pairs well with Hurley's worried and mourning Aoife.
Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's "Outside Mullingar" benefits from great design work all around. Scenic designer Pauline Oleksy ingeniously handles the play's multiple locations. These range from soggy farm grounds to the contrasting farmhouse interiors that flesh out how Shanley's eccentric characters lead their day-to-day lives.
Cat Wilson's solid lighting design also helps to delineate shifts in the play's tone and locations. Meanwhile, costume designer Kimberly G. Morris' damp and mud-speckled farming outfits are spot-on.
With the musical "Once" stomping up a Dublin pub ruckus at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora and Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's "Outside Mullingar" finding abundant humor with eccentric rural farmers, suburban stages are playing to Irish pride with strong productions offering contrasting views of contemporary Ireland. But you don't have to be Irish to be deeply moved by either work.
The parent-child conflicts, reconciliations and legacies that Shanley finely and funnily packs into "Outside Mullingar" are universal. Laugh and cry all you want.
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Location: Buffalo Theatre Ensemble at College of DuPage's McAninch Arts Center, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-4000 or atthemac.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through June 3
Running time: About 1 hour 50 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Nearby free lots
Rating: Contains some mild language, discussions around sex